Amy Owens, who owns Blue Ribbon Singles in Indianapolis, proudly poses with some framed photographs of successful clients. (Gannett, Frank Espich/The Indianapolis Star) / Frank Espich, The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- Personal matchmakers' share of singles' hearts -- and wallets -- has grown considerably over the last few years. Many people looking for love are now paying hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- for personal matchmakers to find them Mr. or Ms. Right, especially now as Valentine's Day approaches.
The dating industry, which includes online and personal services, is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion in the United States. Personal matchmaking services account for about $500 million of that, according to The Matchmaking Institute in New York City.
Personal matchmaking also seems to be recession-proof. Its worth has doubled since 2006, and The Matchmaking Institute estimates that there are now more than 2,000 professional matchmakers in the U.S.
Personal matchmakers certainly aren't the only way to find a mate. Dating websites remain popular, and there are national matchmaking services such as It's Just Lunch.
But several factors could be contributing to personal matchmakers' popularity, said Lisa Clampitt, who co-founded The Matchmaking Institute.
Higher divorce rates mean more people are single. Newly divorced people might feel like they need coaching after being out of the dating scene for several years. And some people tire of the bar scene and online dating and want more personal help, she said.
The industry also has garnered a little free publicity with the help of popular TV shows, such as Bravo's "Millionaire Matchmaker."
"People are more and more aware of it as a resource," said Clampitt. "I've seen so much growth. It's been a very, very healthy industry."
Matchmakers, of course, argue that their services are more effective than other dating methods.
They personally screen their clients, so it's impossible for people to lie about their age or physical appearance, an oft-parodied danger of online dating.
And matchmakers can be picky about who they take on as clients.
Amy Owens, owner of Blue Ribbon Singles, an Indianapolis matchmaking and singles coaching service, won't take clients if they don't have some sort of college degree and a white-collar job.
If people are overweight, she asks them to get in better shape and come back.
"They usually leave hurt or angry, and they come back," she said. "It may be a year later, and they say, 'You were right, I didn't like hearing it. It took me a while, but I decided, yeah, I needed to do something about it, so here I am.' "
Owens, who brands herself as "The Singles Coach," estimates that about 85% of the couples she sets up want to go out with each other again.
Her success, she said, stems from her system and her rules.
Owens' services are moderately priced. She charges $100 an hour and estimates that most of her clients spend an average of $400 to $500 total. Dating websites like Match.com and eHarmony charge as little as about $20 a month, depending on the type of subscription. It's Just Lunch charges $2,300 for a yearlong membership.
Jon Fader, who Owens matched with Sherry Hampton, a 44-year-old who was divorced, took her advice to heart.
"For first dates, she said that I should wear a jacket," Fader said, "not necessarily a suit, but that I should have at least a sport coat on. I paid attention to that. I didn't have any sport coats, but I thought I needed some, so I bought some."
Owens has plenty of rules for her clients as they prepare to date, too.
She tells them to read eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren's book "Falling in Love for All the Right Reasons."
She tells the men to pay for dinner, and she doesn't allow kissing on the first date.
She also doesn't allow couples to exchange contact information on the first date. She gives them each other's contact information if they both want to see each other again.
An ancient practice
Clampitt of the Matchmaking Institute has made a career of trying to establish the industry as an ethical and credible one.
It can be a tall task, considering the industry's origins can be traced back to a time when a bride was given to a groom with the added bonus of livestock and a matchmaker took a share of that bonus as payment.
But Clampitt, a matchmaker herself, co-founded the institute in 2003 to set ethical standards for matchmakers and teach them how to run their businesses.
"You have to have a strategy to establish success, otherwise you're going to be taking money and going under," she said. "It's a real high-stakes, emotional business. You're not working with products here, you're working with people's love lives. There's nothing more fragile."
Like any other industry, matchmaking requires training so that people can learn the trade.
People who use matchmaking services need to be diligent, too, she said.
"Know what you're getting and know what you can afford," Clampitt said. "Don't be sold into a situation that doesn't work for you."
But does it work?
Ask people such as Fader and Hampton, and they will tell you that matchmaking is highly effective.
They doubt they would have found each other without Owens.
Fader had tried online dating for several months without much luck.
Hampton said she hadn't really tried to date, and she didn't want to sign up for online dating.
The couple has been together since November.
Some experts say dating services aren't any better than meeting people organically.
The first clue that dating services aren't always effective: They don't offer any guarantee, and they won't refund people's money if they don't find their soul mate, said Bernardo Carducci, psychology professor and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University-Southeast.
Commercials for some dating websites even give a realistic picture of the odds. They say that one in five relationships begins online, he said, so that means the other 80% start by other means.
The "old-fashioned way" is still the best strategy for meeting people, said Carducci, who has run his own dating classes.
"I know that's not the kind of stuff people want to hear," he said. "They want to outsource finding love."
Meeting others organically allows people to get to know prospective mates for who they are, not the more scripted -- and sometimes fake -- versions they create on dating profiles or in interviews.
Clampitt said she believes that a matchmaker is more effective than trying to meet someone in person. People approach others based on attraction, not compatibility, she said. It also takes a lot of courage to approach someone in public. And there are other drawbacks.
"Even if you do find a great person," she said, "they're not screened, you don't know their background."
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
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